Crimea leader says it will never again be part of Ukraine

March 16: Crimea’s prime minister has told the BBC the peninsula has returned to its historical Russian homeland and will never again be part of Ukraine.

Sergei Aksyonov said the annexation of the peninsula by Russia one year ago had been a “democratic act”.

In a pre-recorded interview which aired on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had been ready to put nuclear weapons on standby at the time.

Mr Putin has not been seen in public since 5 March.

The Kremlin has denied rumours that he might be sick or even dead.

Mr Putin is due to meet the President of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev, in St Petersburg on Monday.

Mr Atambayev’s office has confirmed on its website (in Russian) that he arrived in the Russian city on Sunday.

Crimea was formally absorbed into Russia on 18 March – amid international condemnation – after a disputed referendum boycotted by Crimeans loyal to Ukraine.

Earlier, unidentified gunmen had taken over the peninsula and Mr Putin admitted in the interview that he had deployed troops to support “Crimea’s self-defence forces”.

The action resulted in the US and EU imposing sanctions on Russian organisations and individuals, including Mr Aksyonov.

But Mr Aksyonov denied that Russia had done anything wrong.

“I can tell you that no-one took anything,” he told the BBC’s John Simpson.

“That was the choice of the Crimeans. Nothing could happen without the support of the local population which is why this was not an act of aggression, but a real democratic act.

“This is the main mistake and misunderstanding of Western leaders. People are misinformed by the media which is failing to give an accurate picture of what happened last year in Crimea.”

Mr Aksyonov defended President Putin’s actions over Crimea, saying the Russian leader had been faced with a choice – protect the population of Crimea or abandon them to Ukrainian nationalists.

“I believe his decision was the right one. And this decision was not taken before the New Year, nobody interfered with the internal politics of Ukraine. I would have made exactly the same decision as he did.”

In the documentary on Russian state TV on Sunday, Mr Putin said the life of ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych had been in danger as had been the lives of Russians in Crimea.

“We never thought about severing Crimea from Ukraine until the moment that these events began, the government overthrow,” he said.

On putting Russia’s nuclear weapons into a state of combat readiness, Mr Putin said: “We were ready to do this.”

“[Crimea] is our historical territory. Russian people live there. They were in danger. We cannot abandon them,” he added.

While the formal annexation of Crimea was virtually bloodless, it sparked unrest in eastern Ukraine in April, when pro-Russian protesters occupied government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, demanding independence.

A month later, pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine after unrecognised referendums.

The eastern region has since been engulfed in a conflict which has cost at least 6,000 lives, according to the UN.